Woodworking tools evoke images of lost era

Old woodworking tools offer an advantage to collectors by playing a dual role. For some people, collecting old tools because of their usefulness, as well as their craftsmanship, is one reason. Another is that they conjure up in many minds a time that is forever past.

“I think many men, and some women, are drawn to tools because of their usefulness,” said Larry Poffenberger of Tulsa, Okla. “On a practical level, I find that very fine adjustments can be made with hand woodworking tools that are nearly impossible and frequently dangerous with power tools.”

Poffenberger, who sells all kinds of antique hand tools but specializes in Stanley tools because “they are the most prevalent and are of good quality,” has found that the most expensive and desired tools are the ones that were not commonly used, which means that fewer of them were sold.    “The woodworking tools used by highly-skilled craftsmen, usually cabinetmakers, are the most popular among collectors because they are the best of the best tools and were not widely used,” he said.

Poffenberger maintained that the finest tools were typically made of ebony and/or rosewood and brass. “I believe rosewood to be the most beautiful of woods, hence the   company name of Rosewood and Brass,” he noted.

He added that the popularity of old tools can be defined in two ways — the most widely-owned and those that were the most expensive.

“The rarest of tools are often prototypes of tools before they were put into production and there is often only one in existence,” Poffenberger said. “These tools frequently sell for tens of thousands of dollars. There are other very expensive tools that were mass produced, but are still sought after because there are only a few still in existence.”

Donna Kay Rose Allen of Rose Tools Inc. in Hiwasse, Ark., ascribes the popularity of old woodworking tools to the number of people who enjoy making crafts, fine furniture, cabinetmaking and wood carving.

“They like the feel of using a hand tool over a power tool,” she said. “It gives them a satisfaction of actually making a quality item by hand, as in the olden days of their ancestors. And a lot of people enjoy using antique tools over newer ones because of their quality and craftsmanship.

“The number one antique tool that attracts the most attention is the woodworking plane,” Allen pointed out. “There are a variety of sizes which are called block, smooth, jack, fore and jointer planes.”

Most of the antique tools that Allen sells were made by manufacturers like Stanley, Millers Falls, Starrett and Belknap Bluegrass. The tools range from adzes to woodworking planes.

“These tools are very collectible in the antique tool world and are still very usable today,” Allen said. “And a lot of people will buy these tools just to set on their mantle piece for decor.”

Gloria Howard of Golden Valley, Ariz., thinks the media has an effect on popularizing old woodworking tools.

“The interest in woodworking is growing faster than ever,” she pointed out. “Some of this is due to woodworking shows like New Yankee Workshop, do-it-yourself programs, and celebrity woodworkers like Norm Adams. And with baby boomers getting older and finding more time on their hands, they are going back to using tools and techniques they saw their fathers and grandfathers use.”
Allen noted that hand planes and hand tools have been attracting the most attention from collectors lately.

“It’s because of their availability and durability,” she said. “They’ve endured the test of time and take you back to the time when craftsmanship was truly appreciated.”

Peter R. Habicht of Sheffield, Mass., who specializes in providing old tools for users, collectors and decorators, concurs with Allen.
“Many professionals like doctors and lawyers are taking up woodworking as a hobby,” Habicht said. “Also, old tools are still very inexpensive compared to other antiques and collectibles.”

Habicht noted that the tools attracting the most attention are those that are rare and/or are in extremely good condition.
So what are old woodworking tools selling for?

Poffenberger said that common planes run from $30 to $100 in good condition. A scraper plane, which is much less common, will run around $175. A 603C Stanley Bedrock bench plane will cost around $300.

But he’s sold tools for much more than those prices. Poffenberger currently has an American plough plane made of ebony and rosewood with ivory tips that is worth more than $2,000.

Allen said that as far as the antique plane market goes, she has seen prices ranging from $10 to $20,000, depending on the rarity of the tool. But the majority of the hand woodworking tools run in the range of $50, she added.

One of the most expensive woodworking tools Allen has sold was a Stanley No. 1 smooth plane in near mint condition, with a Sweetheart trademark on the blade, which went for $2,500.

She also has a rare and well-preserved patent take-apart brace drill by Haeberli & Schmidt of Buffalo, New York, patented July 2, 1907, priced at $1,200.

“This unusual brace, which is designed to convert from a standard ratcheting brace to a corner brace, receives the A rating for less then five examples known, in Dr. Ron Pearson’s book on patented American braces,” she adds.

In addition to old tools, accessories are also important to collectors. For instance Habicht recently sold a vintage tool chest for $3,000, and also a Spiers miter plane for $2,600.

Habicht’s most unusual tool is an early 1800s Lathe Hustler used for large architectural wood turning. “It’s massive and has been turned from a fabulous piece of fruitwood, probably cherry, and has hand-forged fittings.”

But a looming question among collectors is whether or not the supply of old woodworking tools will hold up.

“It appears to me that the overall number of tools in good condition is declining, no doubt mostly to collectors retaining them and some of the less expensive ones being used by woodworkers,” said Poffenberger. “Prices have been slowly recovering because collecting is a luxury. The more expensive and rarer tools are the exception.”

Allen agreed. “Many are thrown away by a younger generation that has no clue as to the use or value of these tools, many of which are left in a barn to rust away,” she said. “Also many collectors are hanging on to their private collections, making the tools harder to come by.”

Habicht thinks that the law of supply and demand applies. “Tools in good condition or better are becoming harder to find,” he added.
But Howard has a different view. “Availability is increasing because some older woodworkers have died and the value of their tools is becoming better known,” she said. “They are beginning to appear on auctions, at yard sales, estate sales and pawn shops.”

In fact, her partner Dave Eller recently purchased a collection of more than 50 planes, chisels, lathe tools and marking tools from a pawnshop.

“A grandson had inherited from his grandfather and sold an entire collection of old woodworking tools,” she said. “Apparently he did not have an appreciation of the value of these tools.”